I chuckled more than a little last week reading an article in the Wall Street Journal called “Canned Gourmet Cuisine” (I’d link but WSJ is a pay-only site these days). It treated as a revelation the fact that some high-end restaurants use pre-prepared ingredients in their center-of-plate dishes. Of particular note, that Jean-George Vongerichten uses Hellman’s mayo in one of his shrimp stir-frys and that there’s Heinz ketchup in David Bouley’s yellowtail marinade. The only thing I could think in the face of this breathless announcement was: well duh.
I think pretty much anybody who cared to stroll the pantry of their favorite four-star restaurant would find some very surprising things. Not only plastic jugs of Hellmans (actually you’d be more likely to find a generic mayo) and ketchup, but Worcestershire sauce, boxes of potato flakes, cans of olives (who cures their own?), canned fruits of all types (especially peaches), cans of corn, Asian condiments of every description, name-brand pastas, canned beans, instant oatmeal, steak sauces, bullion cubes, crackers, jars of sun-dried tomatoes. No, using off-the-shelf grocery items is nothing new to the world of gourmet food.
I remember once going into the back of one of New York’s top pastry shops. And what did I spot there? Giant plastic jugs of Nestle Quik. I have no idea what they did with it, I didn’t care to ask. But it just goes to show that you never know what someone’s super-secret weapon is. The fact that the world’s top chefs have them should come as no surprise.
Of course there’s always a scold to be found out there if you look hard enough. And look the Journal did, finding one right where you’d expect: at the cleanest of the clean, the purest of the pure, the restaurant whose spice shelf probably doesn’t contain even a single can of Lowry’s Season Salt: Chez Panisse in Berkeley. There they were able to bait Executive Chef Jean-Pierre Moullé with the notion of off-the-shelf ingredients. His 7-word response: “It’s wrong. It’s what we fight against”. But then what else would you expect from a restaurant whose entire raison d’être is making every last component of every last menu item entirely from scratch from local ingredients? I know of no other world-class restaurant that can live up to their standard of purity.
Certainly their pastry departments can’t. But there again I’m showing my biases, since as I’ve often written, pastry people are used to making compromises with modernity. Indeed most committed pastry makers have a streak of
either the chemist or the architect in them, and are willing to employ all manner of technologically advanced equipment and ingredients to achieve their ends. Being a purist on the level of Alice Waters would, after all, deprive us of not only sugar and light, bleached flours, but also of chocolate. And what pastry maker is willing to go without that? Indeed, compromise is built into the job description.